Exoplanet Discovery and Science

weighted average IR tranmission spectra of exoplanets
Weighted average IR transmission spectra of exoplanets with H2O detections obtained with the Hubble Space Telescope, Iyer, Swain, et al., Ap. J., 823, 2, 109, 2016.

JPL researchers investigating exoplanets and their origins use telescopes and advanced modeling techniques to determine the physical and chemical processes in the swirling clouds of gas and dust where stars and planets are born, and to detect and characterize planets around other stars. The work involves collaborations with many groups worldwide using related techniques. JPL researchers aim to answer numerous questions on the following topics: the kinds of exoplanets that exist, the factors that determine the properties of exoplanet atmospheres, and what the disks around young stars reveal about the formation of exoplanets. JPL researchers are using high contrast, high resolution, stellar coronagraphy (direct imaging of the exoplanets), transit spectroscopy, interferometry, theory, and development of new technology to advance this field of research.


Current Research Tasks


  • Development of high contrast imaging technologies and future space telescope mission concepts aimed at directly imaging planets around other stars. In this area, laboratory coronagraphs have achieved contrasts exceeding billion-to-one in JPL space-simulation testbeds.
  • High-contrast imaging and interferometry experiments carried out at the Palomar and Keck observatories, and at the Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy (CHARA) array.
  • Studies of planet formation in the circumstellar disks of young stars using ground and space observatories and computer modeling. Imaging with Hubble, in combination with Spitzer and Herschel measurements and detailed modeling, is leading to new insights into the disks' structure, composition and evolution.
  • Numerical modeling to predict the planet formation signatures that will be detectable with present telescopes such as SOFIA and future telescopes such as JWST and WFIRST.
  • Comparative exoplanetology through characterization of the composition and structure of exoplanet atmospheres using infrared spectroscopy of transiting exoplanets.
  • Theoretical studies to understand chemical processes and dynamics of exoplanet atmospheres.


The Exoplanet Exploration Program


predicted coronagraph performance
Predicted performance of the AFTA/WFIRST coronagraph.

Exoplanet science is among the fastest evolving fields in astronomy today. Ground-based planet-hunting surveys alongside dedicated space missions (such as Kepler/K2 and CoRoT) are delivering an ever-increasing number of exoplanets.

The Exoplanet Exploration Program (ExEP) is responsible for implementing NASA’s plans for the discovery and understanding of planetary systems around nearby stars. ExEP plays an important function in exoplanet research, by laying out a long-term view of the entire field and charting out a strategic timeline of missions and instruments. The program includes the Kepler/K2 mission, the NN EXPLORE partnership between NASA and the NSF, the Large Binocular Telescope Interferometer, and the WFIRST's role in future exoplanet studies.